KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Royals traded outfielder Melky Cabrera to the San Francisco Giants for left-hander Jonathan Sanchez on Monday, upgrading their rotation and clearing the way for hotshot prospect Lorenzo Cain to get a chance in center field.
It was the second significant trade involving a starter this offseason. The Atlanta Braves shipped Derek Lowe to the Cleveland Indians last week.
The Royals also received Double-A pitcher Ryan Verdugo in the deal.
With a young lineup and plenty of talent still in the minor league system, Royals general manager Dayton Moore was willing to part with Cabrera to fill his biggest need: starting pitching.
“He’s a very dynamic left-handed pitcher,” Moore said. “His hit rates are very low, his strikeout rates are very high, his walks aren’t something we’re overly excited about, but at the same time he’s very young. He’s somebody our scouts feel is a breakout candidate moving forward into 2012.”
The subject of trade speculation for several years, Sanchez threw a no-hitter on July 10, 2009, against San Diego. Only an error by third baseman Juan Uribe kept it from being a perfect game.
Giants general manager Brian Sabean said he was never close to moving Sanchez in the past put him on the trading block after the season in hopes of finding a player to bolster an offense that finished last in the NL in runs.
“In this case given the player available and our acute need for more offense, this was the time to cross the bridge,” Sabean said. “We weren’t exactly sure a player like this would be available. We put Sanchez’s name out at the end of the season, and this was the best match.”
Despite the emergence of former No. 1 draft pick Luke Hochevar and rookie Danny Duffy, the Royals’ starters still logged the third-fewest innings of any staff in the American League. Their combined 4.45 ERA was also the third-worst in the AL, ahead of only Minnesota and Baltimore.
Sanchez was the Giants’ best pitcher during the latter part of 2010, when they beat the Texas Rangers to win the World Series. He was 4-1 with a 1.03 ERA over his last seven outings, and finished the year with a 13-9 record and a 3.07 ERA.
Sanchez struggled most of this season, partly due to a case of biceps tendinitis, going 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA before missing the final month with a left ankle sprain. But the injuries weren’t enough to dissuade Moore from making a bold move to help his young pitching staff.
The 28-year-old Sanchez, who pitched the clincher over the Padres to win the NL West on the final day of the 2010 season, has had trouble with his command, walking a league-high 96 batters two years ago. But he’s largely been able to overcome that with his high strikeout rate.
“He’s a solid No. 3 starter on a championship-type club,” Moore said. “When you look at this guy’s strikeout rate, his swing-and-miss rate is among the very best in the game, so that’s something for us to build on and we’re excited to make him a part of this team.”
Cabrera rebounded from a disastrous season with Atlanta by hitting .305 with 44 doubles, 18 homes and 87 RBIs in his first season in Kansas City.
He was the first Royals player with at least 200 hits in a season since 2000 as his improved conditioning paid off at the plate.
“He’s 27 years old and it looks like he’s coming into his own,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’s a guy who can hit at the top of the order, whether its first or second. He can steal a base, he’s athletic and can play anywhere in the outfield.”
By acquiring Cabrera, the Giants could decide against offering a contract to outfielder Cody Ross. The 2010 NL championship series MVP is seeking a two-year deal.
Moore said the deal made sense for both sides. Their salaries are about the same and both players are eligible for free agency after the 2012 season, when the Giants hope prospect Gary Brown is ready for the majors.
The Giants had a surplus of starting pitchers, and the Royals are confident enough in Cain to give him a shot at the everyday job.
Cain hit .312 with 16 homers and 81 RBIs this year for Triple-A Omaha.
“It was very important for us to free up an opportunity for Lorenzo Cain to play center field for us every day,” Moore said. “We felt we needed to move on this deal with Jonathan Sanchez before it moved away.”
The Giants aren’t yet sure where in the outfield Cabrera will play and where he will hit in the batting order, saying those decisions will be made after they have a better idea of who else is on the team.
Finding a leadoff hitter is a priority for San Francisco, and Cabrera filled that role for about a quarter of a season with the Yankees in 2007. But he almost exclusively batted second last season and his career on-base percentage of .331 is not ideal for a leadoff hitter.
“I’m willing to play anywhere in the order where the manager wants to put me,” Cabrera said through an interpreter. “I know this year I batted second. But wherever they put me I’ll do the best job I can.”
This move likely means that lefty Barry Zito will likely be in the Giants rotation again in 2012. At the end of the season Sabean reiterated president Larry Baer’s recent statement that struggling $126 million pitcher will remain on the team rather than buying out his huge salary.
The 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner with Oakland, Zito has struggled in his five years across the bay in San Francisco and was left off the postseason roster for all three rounds in 2010. He is owed $19 million next year, $20 million in 2013 and has an $18 million team option with a $7 million buyout in 2014.